I Shall Be Released: A New Beginning

Reviews of new and recent recordings by Kevin Hearn, Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band, the Dex Romweber Duo, Shonen Knife and others

click to enlarge Jaimoe's Jasssz Band - Renaissance Man
Jaimoe's Jasssz Band - Renaissance Man

Well, we’ve taken down the free SPCA fluffy kitty/puppy day planner from the kitchen door and put up the free World Wildlife Fund animal kingdom mother/cub book of days and that can only mean one thing: We didn’t wait until late February to switch to the new year’s calendar, which is typically par for our course. And with the new year comes a change for I Shall Be Released; my weekly review column (or semi-weekly, depending on schedule and level of brainlock), normally found as a web-exclusive feature, has been moved to the spiffy Daily Beat music blog, where you will find it from this day forward. I’m not sure why I was upgraded to first class, but I’m sure everyone now expects me to be punctual and timely to line up with the whole “Daily” theme of the thing. Fly me, Mandy, keep the gin and tonics coming, and I’ll see what I can do to live up to my new seat designation in the better section.

As for today’s post, much like the tail end of last year, the newer stuff is up here, the older catch-up reviews are down there and it’s all good under the hood. January looks light enough to accommodate my outstanding 2011 reviewage while I sample what the new year is bringing. And based on the release sheets and the stuff showing up in my mailbox already, 2012 is shaping up to be another great year for music. And in case no one’s pointed it out yet, we’ve got exactly 100 years before we can make Rush jokes similar to the crop of George Orwell zingers that went around in 1984. Well, someone can make Rush jokes; those of us in the here and now will all be dust in the wind (let the Kansas jokes commence). Read on, literate music fans, and happy new year!—-

Forty-two years ago, Southern Rock was christened and defined by its single greatest proponent, the soon to be stratospheric Allman Brothers Band. In relatively short order, Gregg and Duane Allman went from abject failure as Hour Glass in 1968 to critical successes with their eponymous band debut in 1969, Idlewild South in 1970 and the nearly inconceivable heights achieved by their stunning 1971 live album, At Fillmore East. Legendary tragedy and epic chemical misadventure ultimately unraveled the Allman Brothers Band, but the members’ hypnotic methods of riveting together the sturdiest parts of Rock, Blues, Jazz, Soul and even Classical music cemented their legacy in the annals of Rock.

One of the Allmans’ most distinctive differences was in the use of dual drummers. Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson (who had briefly drummed with Otis Redding) anchored the band with synchronous thunder and sinewy, Jazz-inspired counterpoint lightning, inspiring the perfect pulse for the guitar/bass/keyboard magic that was swirling around them. Jaimoe originally left ABB with keyboardist Chuck Leavell and bassist Lamar Williams to form Sea Level in 1976, returning three years later but departing almost immediately due to back problems caused by a car accident six years previously. For close to a decade, Jaimoe played sporadically and lived in poverty until rejoining the Allman Brothers in 1989 at a time when the band’s fortunes began to rise again; he’s remained with them ever since.

For a good number of years, Jaimoe has explored even more textural approaches to the genre stew he’s helped cook up with the Allman Brothers in the context of his own group, Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band. Although the JJB has released a pair of limited run live sets, the just-issued Renaissance Man represents the band’s studio debut.

The basic architecture and sonic profile of JJB is fairly reminiscent of the Allman Brothers, but Jaimoe clearly places a greater emphasis on Jazz (the group brilliantly covered Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” on its first live album in 2006). The gorgeous “Laurie Ann Blue” is a perfect synthesis of the Allman Brothers’ silky Blues and Jaimoe’s exquisitely distilled Jazz influences, while the chugging “Dilemma” has the relentless polyrhythmic invention of classic ABB.

More to the point, Jaimoe never skirts his ABB heritage as he embraces and evolves a sound he helped to concoct four decades ago. His version of “Melissa” is a lovely, soulful Jazz reading of an acknowledged masterpiece. Jaimoe has a number of weapons at his disposal in the Jasssz Band (including bassist Dave Stoltz, keyboardist Bruce Katz and the brilliant horn section of Paul Lieberman, Kris Jensen and Reggie Pittman), the most potent being guitarist/vocalist Junior Mack, whose visceral and passionate approach to singing and playing helps define and differentiate Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band from its parent group.

Renaissance Man is tailor-made for fans of the Allman Brothers by one of the band’s legendary founders. It’s a work that acknowledges its obvious roots and then finds new and fascinating directions to go within its well-travelled construct.

(Click here to listen to the band's version of "Melissa" at rollingstone.com)

The 14-year gap between solo albums isn’t any surprise to true fans of Kevin Hearn, who are fully aware of his completely jammed schedule as keyboardist for both the Barenaked Ladies and his own group, Kevin Hearn & Thinbuckle. And while Cloud Maintenance, his first actual solo record since 1997’s Mothball Mint, is a shade on the skinny side (10 tracks in about 34 minutes), it more than makes up for it in content and concept.

Inspired by Don Porcella’s cover painting titled "Routine Cloud Maintenance," Hearn has created a sonic travelogue that deals with journeys both internal and external and distances both vast and infinitesimal. The album’s quietly powerful opening track, “Northland Train,” begins with the gentle piano-and-voice presentation that marks the best work of Randy Newman, then veers into a clattering Art Pop arrangement that briefly mirrors the frenetic yet comforting bustle of the title conveyance. It’s a perfect introduction to Cloud Maintenance, yet another prime slice of Hearn’s thin yet appropriately emotional voice and playfully precise keyboard skills.

The album moves from the beautifully intricate runs and sharp melancholy of “She Waved” and the jaunty Ben Folds/Randy Newman Pop bounce of “Don’t Shuffle Me Back” (featuring the expressive vocals of former Platters/Nylons bass voice Arnold Robinson) to the lightly desperate need for connection in “Tell Me Tell Me” and the arty Pop swagger of “The House of Invention” (featuring electric piano from former Band keyboardist Garth Hudson and vocals from his wife Maude). There’s even a bit of Ben Folds-meets-Dr. Seuss humor in the album’s closer, “Monsters Anonymous,” where a parade of famous creatures of history, legend and literature explain their neuroses in a self-help forum while Hearn mixes piano Pop with flecks of barrelhouse Blues and Classical flourishes.

Cloud Maintenance will obviously be of great interest to Barenaked Ladies fans but the album, like Hearn’s extensive work with Thinbuckle, expands his creative boundaries well beyond the parameters allowed by his day-job band.

They Might Be Giants promoted their first album in 1986 with an appearance on The Joe Franklin Show, hosted by the clueless vaudevillian/C-list celebrity. Johns Linnell and Flansburgh were clearly thrilled to be doing the show for the kitsch factor alone; they showed their homemade video for “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” and seemed genuinely delighted at Franklin when he got their name wrong (They Must Be Giants, They May Be Giants). Oddly enough, Franklin may have been on to something. Over the past quarter century, TMBG has worked in so many different stylistic constructs — Indie Rock nobodies, alt.press darlings, phone-to-internet pioneers, commercial successes, TV/film contributors, kids music heroes, documentary subjects — perhaps more than just one name was required.

TMBG’s latest album, Join Us, its first album of non-kid material since 2007’s edgy and cool The Else, finds the band continuing to channel their experimental Pop side to create a vibe resembling their eponymous debut and its follow-up, 1988’s Lincoln. “Cloisonne” has a Harry Nilsson-goes-Klezmer lilt, “Let Your Hair Hang Down” shimmers with Brian Wilson-produces-the-Cyrcle Pop sunshine, “In Fact” combines Mariachi, Spy/Surf themes and propulsive Indie Rock, “Dog Walker” jerks and smirks with Beastie Boys panache and “Never Knew Love” is TMBG’s twisted take on romantic Synth Pop.

There’s plenty of the band’s patented weirdness (on “Three Might Be Duende” and the band roll call/snarky mortality countdown of “When Will You Die”) and straight Indie Rock snap (“You Don’t Like Me,” “Judy is Your Viet Nam,” “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”), but like every unique thing they’ve ever done, Join Us is a jigsaw puzzle piece that fits in its singular place in They Might/Must/May Be Giants’ surreal yet oddly logical big picture.

If the kooky little fairies in the Godzilla/Mothra movies had guitars and drums, they’d be Shonen Knife. Although it’s a safe bet that the Pop/Punk power of the Knife far surpasses the mere magic of Pacific rim pixies.

For an astonishing 30 years, Naoko Yamano and a rotating cast of similarly inspired friends have turned their love of The Beach Boys, The Ramones and ’60s girl groups into a garage buzzbomb of infectious, sugary abandon and in the process made unlikely fans early on like Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Redd Kross. In addition to recording over 20 studio and live albums over the past three decades, Shonen Knife has also moonlighted as a Ramones tribute band, cheekily dubbed the Osaka Ramones, to more directly honor their Punk heroes. After years of performing solely in a live context, Naoko finally decided to take the concept into the studio, resulting in the Knife‘s latest, Osaka Ramones: Tribute to the Ramones.

Clearly, a trio of Japanese Punk sweethearts isn’t going to accurately translate the fist-pumping outrage and adrenaline/testosterone/amphetamine cocktail that fueled the dirty-leather-and-shredded-denim afterburners of the shitheels from Forest Hills. Indeed, the versions that Shonen Knife present on Osaka Ramones — “Chinese Rock,” “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Beat on the Brat,” “Rock and Roll High School” — are effervescent and cute where the originals were visceral and road-rashed.

But this isn’t a project cashing in on The Ramones name. It’s the Knife’s loving homage to a core influence and a bridging of the Punk culture of the Ramones circa 1978 and Shonen Knife’s ethnic heritage and musical evolution. And it’s advertised right up front with the album’s anime interpretation of the Road to Ruin cover art.

If Shonen Knife’s spins on these Ramones seem a little mannered, it bears noting that the Knife has a great many more influences than just Joey and the boys; don’t forget that they are equally enamored of the Brian Wilson and they contributed a cover of “Top of the World” to a Carpenters’ tribute. Those elements are just as important to the overall sound of Osaka Ramones as The Ramones songs that it contains. It might have a Ramones set list, but it's still a Shonen Knife album.

If you want to get under Dex Romweber’s skin, refer to his music as Rockabilly. He’ll quickly point out that the current definition of the genre is more about fashion and instrumental cliches than actual music. Not that true Rockabilly doesn’t have a place in Romweber’s pantheon, because it clearly does. But whether in his first high profile outfit, Flat Duo Jets, in his solo work or with his older sister Sara in their fresh configuration as the Dex Romweber Duo, Dexter Romweber is all about sifting through the wreckage after genres collide at an unmarked intersection. That deeper stylistic exploration began in earnest on the Duo’s last album, 2009’s Ruins of Berlin, and continues unabated on the latest, Is That You in the Blue?

The Romwebers reel and roar through a Smithsonian card catalog of musical expression, folding in potent combinations and mutations of Garage Rock, Psychedelia, Punk, Surf, Jazz, unadulterated Rockabilly and anything else that might conceivably fit within the broad parameters he’s established for himself over the past three decades. Whether he’s crooning to a slow slinky Garageabilly ballad (“The Death of Me,” the title track), chewing up the scenery with a Psych Punk howler (“Nowhere”) or loosening shingles with a Surf Rock ethic that would rival a melodic jet engine (“Jungle Drums”), Dex Romweber proves to be a man for all guitar seasons.

But it’s important to remember his secret weapon in this endeavor, namely his sister Sara, who has the rare ability to underpin any freaky-styley thing that Dexter dreams up with the absolute perfect backbeat, whether soft and slow as a midnight kiss or primal and loud as the Blitzkreig channeled through a Marshall stack. It’s proof that the whole sibling harmony thing extends well beyond simple vocal range.

An incredible quarter century ago, T Bone Burnett helmed the console for BoDeans’ debut masterwork, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, an album that defined the band’s heartland Rock ethic while clearly exhibiting their debt to gritty Stones-washed electric Blues. Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas have tweaked that basic formula very little in the intervening years, preferring to stay their musical meat-and-potatoes course rather than continually being trendily in and then back out of fashion.

After a string of relatively well received albums in the ’80s and ’90s — including 1993’s Go Slow Down, featuring the anthemic “Closer to Free,” which became the theme for the TV hit Party of Five — BoDeans took an eight year break from recording and then re-established their Rock beachhead wtih 2004’s Resolution, 2008’s Still and 2010’s excellent Mr. Sad Clown. The duo’s latest, Indigo Dreams, follows the same trail they’ve been blazing since the mid-’80s and, like everything that’s come before, it never seems repetitive or overdone.

Like Springsteen, Mellencamp and Petty, Neumann and Llanas typically focus on working class concerns and that is certainly true of Indigo Dreams. Clearly, Neumann and Llanas know a little bit about the struggle to achieve dreams, the magic of accomplishing them and the resultant reality that often veers well away from “happily ever after” and they translate that empathy almost effortlessly into their music. Indigo Dreams jumps to attention with the one-two punch of “Blowin’ My Mind,” with its sidewalk bounce, and the Springsteen-tinged balladry of “Paved in Gold,” appropriate examples of the BoDeans’ longstanding blueprint, the former about the effort and reward of love gone right and the latter about the hard work of dreaming in the real world. They’re common BoDeans themes and the pair work them into a variety of settings, from the Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac slink of “Right Now” and the passionate Heartbreaker Rock of “Way Down” to the Midwest cantina Pop of “Don’t Wanna Go” and the muscular band biopic soundtrack of “Rock N Roll Overdrive.”

Whether they’re taking it easy in the curves or going flat out in the straightaways, BoDeans only know one gear and it’s full tilt. So strap in, hold on and turn it way up.

Hopefully Robert Pollard has made provisions for medical science to study his brain after his death so that a gifted research poindexter can definitively point to a particular frequency or cell cluster that caused an endless stream of brilliantly cavalier music to emanate from Pollard’s magical wizard head-cave. Boston Spaceships (Pollard, bassist Chris Slusarenko and drummer John Moen) is merely one case in point; Pollard’s first post-Guided by Voices band has released five full-lengths, two 7-inches, an EP and a live album since 2008, many singled out for respective end of year honors.

For Let It Beard, Pollard offers a double album’s worth of typical Alt.Pop weirdness while maintaining his creative grip on the more experimental aspects of his Who/Quadrophenia/Lifehouse fixation, like banjos and feedback on “Let More Light in the House,” the Game Theory-tributes-Pete Townshend thunder roll of “Tourist U.F.O.,” the angular Jazz swing of “Minefield Searcher” and the ’60s Punk update of “Toppings Take the Cake” and “Tabby and Lucy.”
With twice the space to fill, Pollard gives his demo id free rein (well, when doesn’t he?), as evidenced by delightfully disjointed counterpoints like “A Hair in Every Square Inch of the House” and “A Dozen Blue Raincoats.” As usual, Pollard’s fanciful oddball moments are fascinating interludes that perfectly frame his more traditionally structured oddball moments (“Christmas Girl,” “Red Bodies,” the title track, the spectacular bombastic Pop twist of “German Field of Shadows”).

Pollard has cited Let It Beard as an inadvertent concept album, but everything he’s written since the first GBV cassette in the late ’80s fits in that bigger picture paradigm; to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, it’s the nine billion songs of Robert Pollard and they all peg perfect holes in their specific times.

There are scant few bands that are as reliably amazing as Fountains of Wayne. From first album to new album, FoW is a physically impossible perpetual Pop machine with an endless supply of infectious hooks and mesmerizing melodies and endlessly fascinating narratives about suburban life with a novelist’s eye for detail and an unlikely combination of cynicism and empathy. The proof of FoW’s broad appeal is evident in the band’s varied successes, from airplay (“Radiation Vibe”) to TV/film placement (“Bright Future in Sales,” a couple dozen others), a bona fide hit (“Stacy’s Mom”) and corollary accolades beyond the band (the Oscar nominated theme to That Thing You Do!).

On their previous albums, particularly the patently brilliant Utopia Parkway and the equally killer Welcome Interstate Managers, FoW perfected the wirewalk between comedy and gravity, sentimentality and snark, bracing Power Pop and taut balladry. But on Sky Full of Holes the band tends to err toward the darker and more melancholy side of its sonic and storytelling persona, which shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a criticism. In some ways, it seems that Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger are way overdue for an album steeped in this level of sad bastardy. Of course, the duo still manage to sneak in a few zingers (“Richie and Reuben don’t know what they’re doin’/Richie and Reuben are both a little out of their minds/Don’t give ’em a dime, they’ll blow through your dough just like they blew through mine” or “Let’s get your phone reconnected/Let’s get this room disinfected/Come on and give me a kiss/I hate to see you like this”) even as they dial down their standard full-tilt hookfest with a surplus of acoustic guitars occasionally counterpointed by tasteful electric flourishes.

When they do amp up the sonic atmosphere a shade (“Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” “A Dip in the Ocean”), there’s an undercurrent of wistful lyrical intent. The beauty of Sky Full of Holes is that Fountains of Wayne does sad and subdued every bit as great as they do bright and bouncy. This album stands toe-to-toe with the best of their intimidatingly excellent catalog.

On their first two albums, Buffalo Killers made a mighty wall of noise that drew on the psychedelic Hard Rock of Blue Cheer with feedback traces of Crazy Horse and the thundering populist appeal of Mountain oozing through the floorboards. The trio’s eponymous debut was forged in the tumult of their transitioned from their previous Garage Rock incarnation as Thee Shams to the weightier sonic vibe of Buffalo Killers, while their sophomore album, Let It Ride, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, was largely written during the band’s frenetic tour opening for The Black Crowes. Both albums quiver with the uncertainty of their creation process and exude a visceral sonic atmosphere as solid as a brick wall and as potent as the thick, tarred smoke from a hash pipe.

For their appropriately titled third album, 3, Buffalo Killers find themselves in a much more settled and almost bucolic frame of mind. Songwriting brothers Zachary and Andrew Gabbard have both married and settled into blissful lives as husbands (and in Zachary’s case, as a father) and their recent songs reflect that strange new sense of security and contentment. The wildly swirling disorientation of Blue Cheer has been recast as the sweet Pop Rock lilt of Joe Walsh and The James Gang (and his later incarnation as Barnstorm) and the result is a sound that certain elements of the band’s heavier sound but leavens them with a lighter, subtler touch.

“Huma Bird” and “Circle Day” kick off the album with a loping squall that Walsh would be proud to call his own, while “Spend My Last Breath” sighs with Walsh’s poppier melodicism. Elsewhere, “Lily of the Valley” and “Jon Jacob” sprout lysergic wings and fly at a safe distance from The Beatles’ sun while “Everyone Knows It But You” pounds and soothes with the same quiet intensity as Neil Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand.” The Gabbards’ greatest ally in this sonic shift is drummer Joey Sebaali, who possesses both great power and great delicacy and provides the appropriate heartbeat for every song and atmosphere.

Cameos from former Greenhorne Brian Olive and Breeder Kelley Deal are icing on an already fantastic Pop cupcake, but the real headline regarding 3 is that Buffalo Killers have evolved into a world-class musical outfit.

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